When the pandemic led to nationwide shutdowns that emptied out offices, central business districts in some of the country’s largest cities were virtual ghost towns. It’s been nearly four years since the global health crisis began, but many downtowns have not recovered. Retail businesses have suffered from lower foot traffic, as office buildings are still experiencing low occupancy rates as many workers continue to work from home. At the same time, the housing crisis has worsened, and affordable housing is sorely needed in places across the country. The solution, a growing number of cities have decided, is to update zoning regulations to allow for more development and to allow for more uses for vacant buildings, like turning offices into residential buildings, and to ban single-family zoning in order to allow for more dense housing. The initiatives can differ widely from city to city, but they all are aimed at revitalizing neighborhoods by evolving with the changes that the pandemic shift has created.
New York City has been one of the most visible cities, putting forth big plans to renew parts of the city that have struggled over the last few years. Last summer, Mayor Eric Adams’ administration announced a big initiative on rezoning with its “City of Yes” program. Essentially, the initiative is a major overhaul of the city’s zoning laws, aimed at updating antiquated rules in order to open up areas to more kinds of development and retail businesses. It’s a complex plan that involves multiple agencies within the city government. Elected officials touted how using zoning and land use as tools would help the city fully recover from the pandemic and equated the City of Yes with the YIMBYism movement. The proposals will focus not just on economic recovery but also on affordable housing and sustainability as the city nears deadlines on its Local Law 97 mandate. “The plan is to update the city’s zoning laws to catch them up with modern times and make it more equitable and sustainable,” said Ashley Doukas, partner and chair of the land use and zoning practice at the New York-based law firm Adler & Stachenfeld.
In 2020, Minneapolis became the first major U.S. city to eliminate single-family zoning through its comprehensive Minneapolis 2040 plan. Studies have shown that since it was implemented, the reform has led to increased construction of affordable housing in previously restricted areas. Between 2017 and 2022, the city’s housing stock grew by 12 percent, while rents only grew by 1 percent. Statewide, the housing stock grew just 4 percent while rents rose 14 percent. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a new law in 2022 banning state localities from requiring parking for new developments built within half a mile of public transit stations. The move was celebrated by environmental advocates, who say it encourages people to reduce their dependence on cars and curbs air pollution. But it could also benefit real estate developers, as parking space requirements often prevent projects from moving forward, especially on smaller sites in urban areas. Looking ahead, state lawmakers in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota are looking at zoning reforms, and the issue is expected to be one of the top priorities in many states in the coming years.
Many cities are focusing rezoning efforts on downtown areas in need of updates. In Bellevue, Washington, a city just outside of Seattle, city leaders updated the land use code as part of its Downtown Livability initiative in 2017. The impetus for added amendments came from the growth the city’s downtown had seen since the city’s downtown first adopted a land use code in 1981. In the decades since the downtown area’s population has grown to more than 14,000 residents and 60,000 workers who travel to the area every week. As a result of the growth, the code became outdated and didn’t account for features that the city now needed to add and update in order to accommodate the new residents and workers. The first project to be built under the new land use code is one that touches on key aims of the reform: taller building height, enhanced public spaces, and more retail options. The project, 555 Tower, opened last year as the tallest building in Bellevue and is 100 percent leased by Amazon.
Even before the pandemic, people were already recognizing that zoning reform could play a big role in economic development and revival of areas that have been in decline. But the impacts of the pandemic and the worsening housing crisis have bolstered the case for zoning reform around the country. These plans put forth by cities to reinvigorate areas by updating their zoning codes are often multi-faceted and aim to tackle a lot of the issues facing the country right now. But as well intended as they are, rezoning proposals often face a lot of opposition, as well as issues with implementation and enforcement.
In most places, the biggest hurdle to passing legislation in the city at a neighborhood level is the local community. Community boards and local groups are often involved early on in the process when rezonings and developments are proposed. It’s the battleground where the NIMBYs and YIMBYs face off, and projects have been known to divide residents and delay or altogether derail developments from ever getting off the ground. Concerns over whether zoning changes will lead to things like gentrification, increased traffic, and other quality-of-life issues are common complaints.
One high-profile example is the redevelopment of the former Domino Sugar Factory on the Brooklyn waterfront. Turning the former factory complex into a mixed-use development was met with fierce opposition from the community. The first developer to purchase the site and propose redevelopment plans ended up defaulting on the development and sold it to Two Trees Management in 2012. After Two Trees took over and submitted plans to the city, they ended up making several changes, including adding more affordable housing, due to community input during the 8-month-long Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) that New York City requires. In Gainesville, Florida, elected officials voted to ban single-family zoning citywide in 2022. But by the next year, city leaders reversed the ban in a contentious vote.
Doukas sees these battles play out in real-time. The attorney has many clients in the real estate industry and has been watching and reviewing community board hearings around New York City recently. While she’s not surprised by community pushback, she has been surprised by which ones face the most opposition. One of the components of the City of Yes plan is aimed at relaxing current zoning rules on retail businesses, something that would allow for more kinds of retail in a bid to revive vacant storefronts and commercial corridors. That has drawn concern from many residents at board meetings around the city, who believe it will draw more traffic and impact quality of life. “I thought the housing one would be the one that got shot down,” she said of recent discussions about the City of Yes program. “Maybe I was being naive.”
Zoning reforms will look different for every city. After all, how zoning laws are written varies widely, as do the particular needs of a city. Many big redevelopment projects proposed as a result of rezonings have faced opposition from the community, but many have eventually been built after considering concerns. We’ll likely continue to see more states and localities adopt or reform new zoning laws as they look to lift up struggling areas and add more much-needed housing. However, it will take time to measure just how much impact the rezonings have had and whether they accomplished what lawmakers hoped they would. But recent studies on places like Minneapolis, where rezoning led to a significant increase in affordable housing construction, are an encouraging sign that these kinds of changes to zoning laws are a step in the right direction.